There are quite a few urban legends on how the California Roll came to be, but all are tied to Los Angeles in the late-1960s. The Little Tokyo district saw the opening of the first notable sushi establishment in the United States–Kawafuku Restaurant. This restaurant put LA on the map as a sushi destination for businessmen, tourists, and tastemakers to experience Japanese culture in the U.S.
The California Roll is the first American variation of sushi cuisine. It is revered as an accessible format for Americans to experience Japanese culture, but it is thought of as untraditional in the sushi community. Chefs like Ichiro Mashita at Tokyo Kaikan in Los Angeles are credited with this innovation of a decidedly American version of sushi, created in part by available ingredients and by the tastes of the American consumer.
The Composition of the California Roll
When Japanese cuisine was introduced to the U.S., many of the traditional Japanese sushi ingredients were wholly foreign to the average American palate. One such ingredient was the nori seaweed, which is traditionally wrapped around the outside of the roll. Many new sushi eaters were turned off by the unfamiliar seaweed taste and texture.
This all changed in the early-70s when a Canadian chef named Hidekazu Tojo piloted the uramaki style. With this style, the rice is on the outside of the roll and the nori seaweed is used as a middle layer between the rice and the other ingredients–almost like a sandwich. This American variation is sometimes called an “inside-out” roll. By turning the sushi inside out, sushi became more approachable to North Americans.
This style became wildly popular in Vancouver and eventually inspired American chefs to adopt it as the standard for the California Roll.
A California roll is seen as an entry-level sushi roll for American consumers, as it features mild flavors and is available at nearly every sushi restaurant in the U.S. Ingredients in a California roll typically include imitation crab, avocado, and cucumber. However, variations are made according to restaurant and chef preferences.
During the rise in popularity of the California roll, bluefin tuna was was not readily available in California except during peak season. This posed an issue, as it was a staple ingredient in traditional sushi at the time. To remedy this, chefs considered using avocado as a substitute ingredient for the bluefin. It had similar properties as bluefin that created a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth taste. Plus, avocados were easier to source in California than bluefin.
Bluefin tuna is actually now an endangered species in the Atlantic, due to overfishing. It’s rare to find it at a sushi restaurant these days, especially in the U.S. Today, many sushi chefs still use avocado in dishes and avoid bluefin tuna because of sustainability concerns.